Philanthropy Institute Extends Reach

August 2, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — More than 80 teachers from all over the country, as well as a small delegation from Korea, came together in June to take a lesson in civic engagement — how to teach it, that is.

Grand Valley State University’s School of Education hosted the first Learning to Give Summer Institute, where participants learned how to impart philanthropic principles in their classrooms and engage students in civic life.

GVSU, through the School of Education and the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, is the lead university piloting the program in Michigan.

Learning to Give, a project of the Council of Michigan Foundations, is a K-12 curriculum designed “to create citizens who are knowledgeable, responsible and involved” in their communities.

The Council of Michigan Foundations and a steering committee of 13 partners in the education and nonprofit sectors created the curriculum. The lessons, units and materials used include academic content about philanthropy and examples of skill development activities to involve students in giving and serving their communities.

Basically, the Council of Michigan Foundations was alarmed by the status of civil engagement in American society and by trends such as decreasing voter turnout, explained Clay Pelon, assistant director of GVSU’s Community Outreach Office for the College of Education.

The United States is far and away the leader in organized nonprofits and philanthropies in the world, said Kathryn Agard, Ph.D., executive director of Learning to Give.

“One of the motivations originally was that we have had so many people coming to us from emerging democracies, particularly Eastern Europe,” she recalled.

“One of the things they know they need to do is build a nonprofit sector in order to have a stable community and a stable democracy.”

So the council launched the project with initial funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“The council has finished up the research portion and now is on to the implementation, and that’s where Grand Valley comes into play. We’re the university that’s going to implement it for Michigan.”

The summer institute more or less kicked off the Learning to Give program in Michigan. All 80 educators attending the event underwent intensive training and wrote new curriculums and lesson plans that weave philanthropic themes into conventional coursework.

Those 80 teachers, in turn, will directly induct 4,900 students into the program this fall, Pelon said.

Ten schools in the metro area are volunteer partners in the project: Forest Hills Central, Northern and Eastern middle schools; Spring Lake Intermediate School; Allendale New Options High School; and in Grand Rapids, C.A. Frost Environmental, Ken-O-Sha Park, Southeast Academic Center, Saint Peter and Paul, and Blessed Sacrament.

“Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy really made it happen at Grand Valley,” Pelon remarked.

“The key to our success at Grand Valley is the fact that we’ve integrated the program so well in the School of Ed. Every new student teacher that comes out of our School of Ed will have been exposed to Learning to Give.”

Learning to Give principles were introduced to GVSU School of Ed students this past winter semester. Assistant Professor Liz Storey said 15 student teachers subsequently chose to participate in the Learning to Give summer institute.

“I could feel their excitement and see it in their eyes,” Storey recalled. “Our purpose in introducing it to them was to begin to integrate it into our curriculum so that, hopefully, as teachers of the future, they will integrate it into their own curriculum.”

GVSU will hold Learning to Give “town hall” style forums, an introductory luncheon and a summer institute next year, as well, Pelon said.

“The third year of the grant is when we’re going to bring in other states that want to become part of Learning to Give. Right now we’ve identified 10 different states and a university in each state that is willing to be the lead university. We’re basically going to exhibit how Grand Valley did it, both the pitfalls and what went well.”

Michigan State University has been testing the effectiveness of the program for seven years.

“I know the biggest impact was in classroom management,” Pelon noted. “The kids were more engaged and there were fewer discipline problems, etc., which led to better success in other areas.”

Agard said the tracking research suggests the program is making a big difference in classroom behavior and school climate.

“We think the reason is because children are being given an expectation that this is how you act in society, and of course their society is the classroom and the school,” Agard explained. They’re also given a language to talk about it, so they’re able to use words like ‘civic virtue’ and ‘the common good’”

Students also are exposed to a lot of “good citizen” role models and concepts, she added.

MSU spent three years doing a formative evaluation of the program and three years developing the measurement tools to test it. The university is now doing outcome evaluation, which will be completed in 2006.

There are 30 pilot schools in Michigan that have agreed to introduce LTG lessons, she said. For three years already, Mona Shores and Muskegon Catholic Central school systems have been teaching LTG lessons at every grade level from K-12, Agard noted.

According to a recent survey of students at schools implementing the philanthropy-themed curriculum, 89 percent of students in grades K-12 reported that they had participated in volunteerism and community work, compared to a national rate of 52 percent.

Some 94 percent of students also indicated they would like to volunteer or donate in the future.

Comparison studies of student work — essays, poems and videos — for the 30 participating schools found that 73 percent of students understood the concepts taught and their work demonstrated they had applied the lessons beyond the classroom, Agard said.

In addition, the organization has been surveying teachers annually for seven years. The results?

“Teachers have found the mission to be clear; they understand the materials, and the surveys show a high level of satisfaction,” according to Agard.

This year, MSU evaluators began observing 3rd through 5th grade classrooms where Learning to Give is being taught and classrooms where it isn’t taught.

“What they’re looking for is how well the children appear to learn the material on the day it’s being taught, and then what difference it makes in the classroom over time,” Agard explained.

She said the research on the 30 schools will be completed in 2006, after which time program oversight in Michigan will transition over to GVSU.

The Michigan project is being funded by a three-year, $350,000 matching grant. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation donated half the amount, and community foundations in the Grand Rapids and Holland-Zeeland areas donated the rest.

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